We are all for keeping our children safe and protected – creating environments that are physically safe from harm that include child-sized and child-friendly furniture. We make sure our playgrounds are well-equipped and in good working order. We cover electrical outlets, put power cords out of the way, and make sure there are not hazards to be pulled over, pulled down, or dislodged. We put up fences around our playgrounds, lock doors to keep children in and unwanted visitors out of our children-only areas. We make bathrooms for children only, add windows to every door, require two non-related adults in every room, never have a child alone with an adult, develop diaper-changing protocol, child-teacher ratios, have people who roam the halls on purpose, develop release-forms and strive to fully communicate with caregivers at all time. Everything we do is in an effort to make sure the children entrusted to our care are safe. We run background checks on all volunteers, frequently visit “watch-dog” and other websites to familiarize ourselves with the potential dangers in our community, require first-aid training of our volunteers, and discuss what it means to be a mandatory responder. We chart, track, and strategize all in an effort to maintain “safe sanctuaries”.
I began my children’s ministry leadership in the era of “divide and conquer” where caregivers were relieved of their children upon entrance to the church and handed to a capable, background cleared, fully trained children’s ministry volunteer who escorted that child (with a matching name tag number that their parents now possessed) to an area of the church that was for children-only. Child protection strategies and creating a safe sanctuary was still a challenge in this culture – but if we built enough walls and developed enough of a barrier between the children and the rest of the church we felt like we could manage it.
But what do we do now? Now that we have moved away from the segregation model of ministry and are welcoming the integrated model of ministry. What do we do now that we realize for the sake of a child’s spiritual formation that don’t need boundaries and separation from the other members of the congregation but they need connection, interaction, and integration into the ministry moments of the larger body of faith? How do we keep them safe while being fully immersed?
Child protection is no longer the responsibility of just the children’s ministry – it is a church-wide responsibility and the entire congregation must “own it”! In the previous cultural paradigm of separate and secure, only those of us leading children’s ministry needed to think about how to keep children safe. In my context, I informed the lead pastor what we were going to do and just sought the board’s rubber stamp approval of the child protection handbook. Today the entire church staff needs to engage the conversation, the entire leadership needs to care and think about how we keep our children safe, and every member of the congregation needs to see it as their responsibility – to be aware of the children’s safety and to make sure their actions and the actions of others result in a safe sanctuary.
What does corporate ownership for a safe sanctuary look like?
- We speak often of the value of children in our midst and rejoice together over their presence in our sanctuaries.
- We develop the corporate attitude that they are all our children and we share together in the responsibility of their safety and their spiritual formation.
i. For children with families present, we welcome – encourage – and commend them for bringing their families to worship.
ii. For children without families present, we become their family.
- We develop a language of inclusiveness and protection that is consistently and frequently spoken:
i. Children are valued here
ii. Children are a treasure
iii. This is a safe place for children
iv. What a joy to see caretakers bringing their own children to Jesus!
v. What a privilege to worship alongside God’s children.
- We develop corporate worship services fully aware that every generation will be represented in the room – from the youngest to the oldest. Not only are children encouraged to be present in our corporate rooms but also they are incorporated as fully participating members in our corporate moments. What does that look like?
- We tear down the signs outside our sanctuaries that say “no one under two years of age allowed entrance” and replace them with signs that say “all are welcome” and then create an environment where they truly are welcome.
- We acknowledge that children don’t yet know all of the “rules of engagement” and find their spontaneity refreshing.
- We recognize that children are capable of faith development and value the signs of child faith – realizing that children have something to teach us all about life in the Kingdom.
- We understand that the Holy Spirit is not deterred by the sounds of children but perhaps those very “noises” can be a source of blessing.
- We train ushers, greeters, team leaders, and all staff to be aware of children (to not just look at the 5’ eye level and above) and look for signs of inappropriate engagement between an adult and a child and then give them the authority to ask questions and make a comment.
- As a church we practice open door policies, two-adult rules, and inclusion not separation in all of our spaces.
- We recognize the areas in our context where children are most susceptible to potential danger and monitor those – bathrooms, hallways, entrances and exits.
- We make sure all of our spaces are child-friendly, not just the kid-only spaces. That means we walk through our corporate areas looking from a child’s viewpoint and curiosity view – are children safe from potential environmental dangers here?
- We celebrate that the children in our sanctuaries are a sign of God’s fulfillment of the covenant to Abraham and like the Israelites we have a responsibility to tell them the stories of God’s faithfulness, to welcome them to worship, and to impress on their hearts His love and His Word.
What a blessing it is for a church to have children present! And what a blessing for us to embrace intergenerational worship – where the older instruct the younger and the younger lead the older. These are positive moves in ministry to children – to create sanctuaries that not just welcome but embrace the children’s presence – but discovering the answers to “how do we keep them safe” requires everyone’s participation!
Dr. Colleen R. Derr
Associate Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministry at Wesley Seminary at IWU